How to treat a winter cough

We are in the sniffles and cough season, and sometimes if we have contacted a winter ailment, we can feel so deflated that even the garden loses its appeal to the option of a duvet day and plenty of hot drinks. The interesting thing is that short exposure to cold temperatures – including a five-minute weed or a 10-minute potter about – actually increases our immune response. Now, not in a sub-zero hailstorm or a full force gale. Common-sense and all that – but it is amazing how nature is often the very shot in arm we need.

A cough is a natural response to irritation of the throat, trachea or bronchial tubes, it is part of our own defence mechanism to expel any irritating material or mucus accumulations from the bronchial tubes. So the cough is actually doing you some good – why then is there so much emphasis on cough suppressant medication and not treatment of the underlying cause of the cough. If I was the cynical type I might say that not treating the underlying cause helps keep you coughing up at the till for more relief.

The winter cough is less likely to be an allergen so all the sips of antihistamine tea won’t shift it, save that approach for spring and summer coughs. It is more likely now to be a viral or bacterial infection – both cause irritation and inflammation of the tubes and trigger a mucus build up – hence the cough to clear. In conventional terms, anything that is Expectorant (loosens mucus and makes expelling easier) or Demulcents (soothing to irritated tissues) will make life easier. There are herbs that do those jobs as well as the sugary syrups and sucky sweets from the chemist.

Once upon a time, the original sign for a pharmacy, before green crosses became the standard, was an illustration or carving of the flower of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) aka coughwort – shows that a treatment for cough was ever welcomed and central to the pharmacist’s trade. We gardeners could note that in its botanical name, the Latin words ‘tussis’ means ‘cough’. Coltsfoot has had a long herbal tradition to both expel mucus and soothe irritated membranes – so remove the reasons to cough. It lapsed from popular use when modern science revealed it contains some pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which can damage the liver if over used or not prepared correctly.

That said the garden still yields options. Herbal expectorants include elderflower/elderberry, elecampane root, fennel, thyme, peppermint, horseradish root, and speedwell. Demulcent herbs include burdock, marshmallow, goldenseal, elecampane, and hyssop. If you don’t grow these or don’t fancy turning your kitchen into cough syrup factory for a day then many are readily available in tea or tincture from your local health store.

Of course, the kitchen is a as much a medicine cabinet as the garden. Grapes for example are somewhat expectorant but also have a tonic effect on your lungs – the juice of grapes can be made into a cough syrup. Raw or cooked, onions are recommended for removing phlegm. Aniseed and cinnamon are two good spices to soothe sore throats and alleviate coughing. Any of the herbs from above can be made into ice pops, granita, ice cream or sorbets to cool and soothe, even mixed with grape, honey or lemon in the process. Homemade lemonade really gets the vitamin C in but just like iced tea it cools and hydrates too.

Here is one of my favourite homemade remedies –

Grape juice and honey cough syrup

Grape juice and honey are brilliant soothers with clearing potential.

Method: bring to a frothy boil minutes three parts volume of honey to one-part volume of grape juice. Simmer for five minutes to reduce. Decant to container and allow to cool before use. Stores for a week in fridge. Can be taken from a spoon several times daily to ease symptoms and soothe throat.

About The Holistic Gardener

author of wellness books, columnist, keynote speaker.
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